A Little Healthy Competition Can Be a Good Thing

Four Ways to Boost, not Damage, Morale

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We've all heard the stories: the proofreader who lets her coworker deliver a critical presentation containing an embarrassing typo, the copywriter who "accidentally" forwards a colleague's unflattering e-mail to the team or the creative director who reduces an underling to tears in a meeting. All, of course, are signs of an office culture gone awry. And at the root of many unhealthy office environments is a level of competition that's become overly intense. Instead of spurring each other to achieve, coworkers try to sabotage one another. The result? Lots of hard feelings and -- worse -- lots of reasons for clients to choose to work with a more cohesive firm.

Competition, of course, can encourage creativity, too. According to a survey by Creative Group, 72% of advertising and marketing executives said their staff members are competitive with each other. And 88% of those with competitive environments said the atmosphere enhances employee output. But supervisors must remember there is a fine line between creating a competitive culture that increases performance and one that breeds bitter workplace rivalries.

Here are steps to foster competition that boosts -- not damages -- team productivity and morale:

Tame turf warriors.

There is such a thing as being too attached to your work. In most cases, having passion for the job and a desire to take ownership of projects are appealing qualities in advertising professionals. However, if a senior copywriter, for instance, becomes overly possessive of a client and isn't open to others' ideas or assistance, it could affect the quality of work your agency delivers. In situations like this, it's wise to remind the employee that the account belongs to the agency as a whole -- not just him or her. If territorial problems persist, it may be time to reshuffle assignments.

Don't offer preferential treatment.

In most agencies, there are a handful of standouts. While you want to make every effort to retain your top performers, it's detrimental to do so by establishing special rules that apply only to them. For example, if you've reprimanded staff for coming in late, don't turn a blind eye when a superstar saunters in at 11 a.m. Playing favorites can ramp up the political jockeying while fueling widespread resentment. Build a reputation for being fair -- and keep bloated egos in check -- by enforcing agency policies evenly.

Extend opportunities to everyone.

The best ideas and solutions don't always come from your agency's most accomplished veterans. Consider giving junior staff members the chance to pitch in on high-profile assignments. "A good way to keep competition healthy is to make sure that opportunities are spread out fairly and to not always let the 'best' creatives get all of the projects," says Amy Hawk, a creative manager at Malone Advertising, Akron, Ohio. "Managers also need to continually recognize and reward good work, even if it's not the design or concept that a client picks."

Reward team efforts.

When the team hits noteworthy benchmarks, go out of your way to publicly recognize the contributions of the entire team rather than lavishing praise on any one individual. By heralding group accomplishments rather than employees who seek the spotlight at all costs, you'll send a strong message that a team-oriented attitude is a key job requirement.

As a manager, one of your primary objectives should be to create an office environment in which staff members can focus their time and energy on client-related issues -- not on shrewdly playing office politics. Keep the internal competition friendly and fair, and you'll keep your employees -- and keep them happy.

Five Signs That Your Staff Is Too Competitive

  1. Employees shy away from collaborating. Good ideas should be shared -- not hoarded. If there's a deafening silence during brainstorming sessions, it could indicate that employees are concerned that their best thoughts will be stolen.

  2. Nobody talks. If most conversations take place over e-mail, employees may be focused on creating paper trails -- a strong signal that an elevated level of mistrust exists in your department.

  3. People don't take vacations. It's never good if employees feel uncomfortable taking time off because they fear the colleagues who temporarily assume their responsibilities will either outshine them or somehow undermine their efforts.

  4. Everyone clamors for credit. The best employees do top-notch work while sharing the spotlight with colleagues. There's something wrong if every member of a project team tries to take the lion's share of responsibility for the success of an initiative.

  5. Your staff members snitch on each other. Occasionally, it may be necessary for a staff member to approach you about a problem colleague, but an endless parade of finger-pointing and malicious gossip indicates that your workers view each other as the opposition instead of allies.
Dave Willmer is executive director of Creative Group, a staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and web professionals.
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